Program Notes: Schumann, Ravel and Falla

Program Notes: Schumann, Ravel and Falla

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Full program notes:


Robert Schumann
Born: June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany 
Died: July 29, 1856, Endenich (near Bonn), Germany

Overture to Manfred, Opus 115

Robert Schumann felt a special enthusiasm for Lord Byron’s Manfred. Friends reported that he would read it at social gatherings, and on one of those occasions he was so moved that he burst into tears and had to stop.

A Melancholy Nobleman
Written in April 1817, when Byron was 29, the poem tells the story of that morose and lonely figure who lives in a castle “amongst the Higher Alps,” where he not only champions liberty but broods over some nameless sin from the past, perhaps involving his sister Astarte, now dead. In this world of turmoil, one that seems peopled more often by spirits than human characters, Manfred remains true to his ideals, even in death.

Manfred has been described variously as a “dramatic poem” or a “poetic drama,” but Byron was adamant that it was not to be performed on stage—he himself described it as a “Poem in Dialogue” and intended that it was to be read. Nevertheless, it was sometimes staged in the 19th century, and Robert Schumann was invited to compose incidental music for such a performance in Weimar. Schumann, excited about the project, worked quickly: he made his first sketches in the summer of 1848, completed the overture on October 19, and had the entire score complete by the end of November. But that music, which consists of the overture and 15 shorter pieces, had to wait a long time for a performance: it was not until four years later, on June 13, 1852, that Franz Liszt led the first staging in Weimar. By that time, Schumann himself had already conducted the premiere of the overture, on March 14, 1852, in Leipzig.

Darkly Dramatic
Schumann was particularly enthusiastic about the overture, telling Liszt that he “felt it is one of the finest of my brain children, and I wish you may agree with me.” Liszt responded that he liked it very much (“I count it among your greatest successes,” he wrote), and it has become the most popular of Schumann’s overtures.

Some have been ready to hear the Manfred Overture as a tone poem, with different themes depicting different characters, but that may be over-interpreting. Dark and dramatic, the overture sets the mood for Byron’s melancholy tale. It gets off to a fierce start: three quick chords make a firm call to order. Schumann syncopates these chords, so that each is a sort of rolling attack, then immediately relaxes the tempo for a long, slow introduction. Here various theme-shapes anticipate the principal themes before the music rushes ahead into the main body of the overture, marked “At a passionate tempo.” The impetuous opening idea alternates with a falling, gliding second theme, and this fluid alternation of tempo will characterize the entire piece. Across the work’s span we hear faint but ominous trumpet calls, perhaps a reminder of the doom awaiting Byron’s hero. At the end, the music of the slow introduction returns, and, on brief reminiscences of its principal themes, the music descends into morose silence.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger

Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 54

Schumann’s Piano Concerto had one of the most difficult births of any great work in this genre. The composer had already made three attempts to write a piano concerto when, in 1841, he brought forth a single-movement work he called Phantasie, which was destined to become the first movement of the Piano Concerto in A minor. The exuberance, freshness and poetry of this Phantasie all reflect Schumann’s great personal happiness in life with his new wife, Clara. Its deeply lyrical impulses may also be seen as an extension of his outpouring of songs, well over a hundred, the previous year.

But publishers were not interested in printing this singlemovement work. Flashy concertos were in vogue; subtle, poetic Fantasies were not. Four years later Schumann wrote two additional movements, and the world premiere of the three-movement work took place on December 4, 1845. Clara, a superb pianist, was of course the soloist, and the Schumanns’ friend Ferdinand Hiller, to whom the concerto was dedicated, conducted.

allegro affettuoso- Schumann dispenses with the traditional orchestral exposition found in classical concertos. Instead there is a peremptory “shout” from the full orchestra, followed by a cascade of chords from the soloist. A wistful, plaintive theme from the solo oboe—as tenderly lyrical and poetic an idea as any Schumann ever conceived—is taken up immediately by the piano, indicating at this early stage the close relationship that will prevail between soloist and orchestra. 

One can find “sonata form” in the movement, but the feel is more that of an extended fantasia, or rhapsody, in which a single theme is worked out in a succession of moods, colors and textures. Where the second theme of a traditional sonata-form movement would have occurred, Schumann reuses his beautiful first theme in the “proper” key of C major for a movement in A minor. The piano initiates the C-major episode, but thereafter it is the clarinet, and later the oboe, which figures prominently while the piano assumes more of an accompanying role. A magical moment arrives when the theme becomes an even gentler, dreamy reverie in the key of A-flat, as the intimate dialogue between piano and clarinet takes a new turn. The cadenza ruminates further on the theme, while the coda assumes the mood of a breathless march to still another re-incarnation of the same theme.

intermezzo: andantino grazioso- Schumann also used the first movement’s pervasive theme as the basis of the following two movements. The coy, playful, four-note idea that figures prominently in the opening section of the Intermezzo is really no more than a cleverly disguised fragment of the familiar first-movement theme. One of the most ravishing passages in the whole concerto is this movement’s central episode, featuring cellos in a theme of soaring lyricism and romantic passion.

allegro vivace- A short bridge passage contains the embryo of the finale’s main theme, which also is generated by the fertile theme from the first movement. The recurring second theme, with its tricky syncopations, is heard by some as a peg-legged march, whose rhythmic ambiguity is created through a quick two-step set against a slower pulse of three beats. A lengthy coda brings the concerto to a radiantly happy conclusion.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program note by Robert Markow 


Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris

Rapsodie espagnole

Rapsodie espagnole, Ravel’s first published orchestral work, is Spanish to the core, subtly and brilliantly evoking the sights, sounds, colors and physical sensations of this land. It was written in 1907 within the space of 30 days and given its world premiere the following year in Paris. The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla—composer of the suites which close this program—heartily endorsed the authentic Spanish flair in Rapsodie espagnole, noting that “This ‘Hispanization’ is not achieved merely by drawing upon popular ‘folk’ sources (except in the jota in “Feria”), but rather through the free use of the modal rhythms and melodies and ornamental figures of our ‘popular’ music, none of which has altered in any way the natural style of the composer.”

The Rapsodie is in four movements of approximately equal duration. The Prélude à la nuit opens with a veiled, diaphanous sound resulting from the unusual spacing of muted violins and violas. This functions as a backdrop against which a number of small motifs are played. The dynamic range throughout is subdued, never rising above mezzo forte, and the delicacy of orchestration is extraordinary. The movement is often said to evoke the languor of a lazy, warm Andalusian night. The following Malagueña is rhythmically much more active. It begins quietly in the double basses and rises to a brilliant climax, following which the English horn gives forth a plaintive, exotic arabesque. Then the basses return with their Malagueña motif. The movement seems not so much to end as to evaporate into thin air. The Habanera had its origins in an unpublished piece Ravel had written in 1895 for two pianos. So closely does it resemble Debussy’s Soirée dan Grenade (1903) that Ravel noted the date of his original piano version in the score to protect himself against accusations of plagiarism. The Feria conjures up the brilliance, commotion and joyous confusion of a Spanish festival, offering the composer splendid opportunities for dazzling orchestral effects and colors.

Instrumentation: 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps and strings

Program note by Robert Markow


Manuel de Falla
Born: November 23, 1876, Cádiz, Spain
Died: November 14, 1947, Alta Grazia, Argentina

Suites No. 1 and 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat

In 1916 the great Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev approached Spanish composer Manuel de Falla with a proposal. Diaghilev had just heard Falla’s haunting Nights in the Gardens of Spain and suggested using it as the basis for a new ballet by the Ballets Russes, then presenting a season in Madrid. But Falla had a different suggestion: he wanted to write a new work based on Pedro de Alarcón’s novel El Corregidor y la Molinera—“The Magistrate (or governor or mayor) and the Miller’s Wife.” Diaghilev agreed to let Falla try this idea out as a pantomime, and Falla composed a score for small orchestra, which was produced in Madrid in April 1917. Diaghilev liked the pantomime, but suggested some revision for its use as a ballet, including new scenes and an expanded orchestra. The result was the ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, first produced in London on July 22, 1919. That premiere brought a spectacular collaboration: Diaghilev oversaw the production, Leonid Massine designed the choreography and danced the part of the miller, while Tamara Karsavina danced the part of his wife; Pablo Picasso painted the decor, and Ernst Ansermet conducted the orchestra. It was a great success then, and it has remained one of Falla’s most popular works.

Romance, Humor and charm
The reasons for that popularity are not hard to discover: The Three-Cornered Hat is a story full of romance, humor and charm, it breathes the warm atmosphere of Andalusia, and it is told in brilliant music. The plot tells of a miller and his beautiful young wife, their flirtations and intrigues, and the trickery that ensues when a third party comes upon this situation. The couple is visited one day by a corregidor (the magistrate, whose threecornered hat symbolizes his authority). The corregidor quickly develops an eye for the beautiful young wife. He orders the miller arrested to clear his own path to the wife, but his flirtation ends in humiliation when he falls into a stream. The corregidor lays out his clothes to dry, and the returning miller discovers them and puts them on, then sets out in pursuit of the magistrate’s wife. It all ends happily: the police rush in and accidentally arrest their own magistrate, the miller and his wife swear their mutual devotion, and the ballet concludes as the happy townspeople toss an effigy of the magistrate in a blanket.

Falla drew two orchestral suites from The Three-Cornered Hat, and they include almost all the music from the ballet. Suite No. 1 opens with a powerful Introduction that sets the scene, and the relaxed Afternoon depicts a village in the sultry Andalusian countryside in southern Spain (in the original production, this introduction also gave the audience a chance to admire Picasso’s curtain before it was raised). The crisp Dance of the Miller’s Wife shows her in all her beauty and sexual energy—this dance takes the form of a fandango, a dance of accelerating tempo. The Grapes is the music that accompanies the miller’s wife as she tempts the corregidor with a bunch of grapes. Marked Vivo and set in 6/8, it rides along nimble trills and a dancing energy as she leads him on, always staying just out of reach.

Suite No. 2 begins with The Neighbor’s Dance, a seguidilla, which is a dance of Andalusian origin. Neighbors gather at the miller’s house on St. John’s Eve—it is a warm summer evening, and they drink and dance. The Miller’s Dance is a farruca, an ancient dance of gypsy origin. This one is full of rhythmic energy, and the miller dances it to demonstrate his strength and masculinity to his wife. It opens with solos for French and English horns, but then the music turns rough: full of hard-edged strength, it grows stronger as it develops, finishing with a great flourish of energy. The Final Dance is a jota, a lively dance from northern Spain, often danced to the accompaniment of guitar and castanets; here it is danced to celebrate the defeat of the corregidor. Falla draws themes from the dance of the miller’s wife in the first scene and drives the suite to its close in a blaze of energy.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, piano (doubling celesta), harp and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger

Minnesota Orchestra Staff